Still Life with Siamese

Calvin guarding my Texas hat
Calvin guarding my Texas hat

So I went to a concert Sunday night to watch a performer I had first seen in person twenty years ago. Both great shows, but it got me to thinking about time and the difference between the type of show a person does when he is younger and the type of show he does when he’s older. The younger show was brash and funny, the older show more thoughtful and introspective.

Apparently introspection is catchy.

Anyway, as I was getting ready to leave for work yesterday, two of my characters started a scene that takes place years from the present set of stories, my fictional equivalent of the gap in the concerts. I could tell it was just going to be a scene or two. Short, sad, poignant. But I had to get to work so I took off and hoped I’d get a chance to write it down later.

But when I got to work, it started to transform. More characters wanted in on the action, the poignant moment turning into an inciting scene for an entire story. And every scene that showed up diluted the original by half. Soon nothing would be left but a watery gruel. The argument in the men’s room was the last straw. Do I want this to be sad or stupid?

I chose sad.

As soon as I get home, I crank up the computer and get to work. And, yes, the characters have decided on short and sad as well. I am deep into it, typing as fast as I can and then….

“MwaaaaaAAAAaaaaaAAAAA” at my bedroom door.

Which is Siamese for “Let me in.” Or at least it is Calvin for let me in. I’ve found that no two Siamese sound exactly alike. Calvin is more of a loud tenor, Hobby is more of a cranky baritone. And neither of them say “Meow.”

I ignore him and try to keep writing, but Calvin will not be ignored.

“MWAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAA!  MWAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAA!  MWAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAA!”

You get the picture.

So I open the door. “Okay, okay, come in.”

“MwaaaaaaAAAAAAaaaaaaAAAAA,” he says, trotting around the bed and trying to judge the distance up to my Wacom tablet. I use a tablet instead of a mouse. Unfortunately, it has buttons on it that scroll or hide windows. I never use the buttons, but Calvin likes to sit on them and activate them with his butt.

“So what do you need?”

“Mmmmmmmmmm.” Now the Mmmmmmm sound is a funny little noise made without even opening his mouth. It is a considering sound, a maybe sound. If he’s not quite sure what he wants or whether or not he likes something, he will mmmmmmm.

After two tries (he is seventeen years old so some days are better than others), he gets up on the tablet. I remove him before he can activate any buttons and set him on the bed.

“Do you want to go outside?” I’m hoping this is the right answer. Calvin likes to go outside and pee on the car tires. He learned that from our old Dobie Spencer. Spencer is gone, but Calvin still likes to pee on tires.

“MwaaaaaaAAAAAAaaaaaaAAAAA.”

“Okay, give me a minute. I’m right at the end of this story.”

“MWAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAA!”

“Okay, okay, you can go out right now.”

I let him outside, leave the door open a crack so he can come back in and return to the computer. I get one sentence typed and then…

“Waaahhhhhhhhhhhhhhh.” Imagine whiny child inflection.

“Not right now, Hobby.”

“WAAAAHHHHHHHHHHH!”

Now Hobby has been sick (he’s also seventeen) so it is important that he eats. So if he wants to eat, I have to go feed him. Right now he will only eat tiny bits of chicken so I cut him up a few chunks, wash my hands, go back to the keyboard.

But before I can close the bedroom door…

“MwaaaaaAAAAAaaaaaAAAA.”

“There’s chicken in the kitchen, Calvin.”

He comes around the bed, eyes the tablet, wiggles his behind.

“Calvin, can I just finish my story?”

“Mmmmmmmmmm.”

Of course, by this time, I’ve totally lost the flow of the thing. I’m not sure exactly how the story ends anymore, but I remove Calvin from the Wacom tablet and type something.

Maybe it’s finished, maybe it’s not.

I’ll try again when I have less company.

 

Scarred for Life

So I back when I was in grade school, I started my first book. It was actually a writing assignment, but I knew it was going to be a book so I confidently titled it “Chapter One.” I’m not sure now what the exact instructions were. I was just excited that I was going to get to write something.

Back in those days, I was very into animal stories. Not the cheerful happy Disney kind. The kind where everyone dies at the end. I’d just finished reading one where the main character was a wolf cub who hides in a crack at the back of his den to avoid being killed with the rest of his littermates. I thought that crack idea was the cleverest thing ever. (Okay, okay, I was ten, all right.) And the murder of his family quickly paved the way for the wolf cub to become an orphan and have a series of adventures. That was pretty much the plot of all the books I’d been reading. Step one, protagonist animal’s family gets wiped out. Step two, adventures.

So I decided that I would write a story about a cougar cub because I liked cougars better than wolves. A cougar cub who was totally black like a black panther. (I know, I know, cougars don’t come in black, but I wanted him to be black. Ten years old, remember?) And he would have some kind of identifying white mark on his shoulder (because being a totally black cougar was not identifying enough apparently.) His siblings would all be normal beige cougars who would show up fine in the darkness, but because he was all black, he could hide in the back of the den and not be seen.

As long as he covered up that damn identifying white mark on his shoulder.

Anyway, Shadow or Midnight or White Spot or whatever his name was, survives a little cougar Armageddon by hiding in a narrow place at the back of the den. It was a variation on the crack thing only better because he was already pretty invisible to begin with.

We had a substitute teacher the day we turned our assignments in. She collected them all and went off to read them in the back of the room while we studied history or something. I was rather proud of my work. I mean it was about a black cougar. How could she not like a story about a black cougar?

Half an hour later, she showed up at my desk, story in hand. The look on her face was not promising. “You didn’t write this story. You copied it from somewhere.”

I felt a tremendous surge of guilt. “Well, just the crack thing. The wolf in the book hid in a crack.”

“So you did copy this from a book. Do you know what that’s called? That’s called plagiarism. That is illegal. These aren’t your words.”

“They are my words.”

“You said they came from a book.”

“No, the hiding in a crack came from a book. But it’s not exactly the same.” I was tremendously confused by this time. She was getting angrier and angrier.

“You can’t steal other people’s words.”

Everyone was staring at me. I sank down into my chair. “I borrowed the crack idea.”

She was practically breathing fire by now. “I don’t care about the crack idea. Did you write this yourself or not?”

“Of course I wrote it myself.”

She looked at me for a long moment, trying to decide if I was lying or not. “You wrote this all by yourself?”

“Yes.”

She tossed it down on my desk. “Then it’s very good.”

I threw the story away on the way out of class that day. I was so terrified by the whole encounter that I never wanted to show anyone anything I’d written ever again.

I got over it.

Sort of.

But still, years later, today to be exact, when a co-worker reads something I’ve written on a project and asks “Did you write this yourself?”, I totally freeze up. I’m ten again looking up at that lady who is certain that I’ve copied my entire first chapter from another writer’s book and I don’t know what to say.

Of course I wrote it myself. Why do people keep asking me that?

There wasn’t even a crack in it.

Revising Myself

Image
The Boot (little Tosca dog added for cuteness)

So let me tell you about the mental deterioration caused by having a boot Velcroed to your foot. The emotional arc runs like this. First, anger and self-pity. (“Why did I have to break my stupid foot AGAIN?” “Why am I the only one who has to drag this heavy boot around?”) Which segues into a sort of grudging acceptance. (“Well, my foot does feel better with the boot on.”) And, perhaps, even occasional glee. (“What a great time of the year to have a handicapped placard!”) But as time and patience wear on, the boot feels less and less like a help and more and more like an anchor. By the end of six weeks, I was ready to chew my leg off. Plus, it is pretty much impossible to sleep with the damn thing on so by the seventh week, I was not only depressed but severely sleep-deprived.

Which turns out to be the perfect state for doing a final reread of a novel because a) it keeps you from thinking about the Boot and b) your internal critic has fallen asleep in a corner.

Now I’m not recommending that anyone who is having trouble revising a novel should run out and break a foot. I’m just saying that rereading stuff you wrote years ago is much easier when you are semi-conscious.

Oh, sure, certain parts are fun. There are whole sections that are fine and then, suddenly, there’s an inexplicable scene, something so off the wall that you don’t even know why it’s there.  Then you spend several hours trying to read your past self’s mind. Failing that, you take the scene out and put it in the discard file. Not the trash, mind you, but the discard file, because sometimes, half a book later, you realize why you needed that inexplicable scene so you have to dig it out, dust it off and put it back in. Much easier to do when you aren’t totally sane or well-rested.

But then I got the Boot off.

About the time I hit Book Three which, well, needs work. A lot of work. First twenty-six pages are great, page 27 is a mystery to me.  Then there appears to be some important stuff missing which I didn’t notice when I wrote it originally but realize I need now. And as the pages go up, so do the places that need shoring up or rewriting or discarding or something. And I begin to wonder if maybe I should just abandon Drac and company and go see what’s on TV.

You know, like normal people.

There’s a scene near the end of the movie Oliver! where Fagin, master fence and pickpocket, has decided to give up his life of crime and work like everybody else. He is confidently walking into a brand new sunrise when suddenly, from behind a pillar box, out steps his prize pupil the Artful Dodger, all decked out in top hat and tails, holding up a stolen wallet. Fagin hesitates, reviews the situation, and decides that maybe he’d been a little too hasty about tossing aside his old profession. He takes the wallet from the Dodger and off they go to look for more.

That’s kind of how revisions are for me. I work until I’m frustrated, hip deep in the spaghetti of intersecting plotlines, no idea how to get out from where I am. I decide I hate everything, that none of it is good, that no one wants to read it anyway. And the burden of making all the little pieces fit together right falls away. I’m free, released, heading off into the sunrise. But then I turn a corner and there is Drac, a little smirk on his face, holding up a shillelagh.

“Bet you wonder what I’m doing in Ireland.”

“No, I don’t give a damn what you’re doing in Ireland. I’m done, I’m finished, I don’t care.”

“Yes, you do.”

“I don’t.”

He twirls the shillelagh. “You know, it’s not actually my shillelagh.”

“I don’t care whose shillelagh it is.”

“And after the Ireland story, I think there’s one about Texas.”

“I’m not listening.”

He pulls out a Carney’s chili dog. “And, of course, there’s this story.”

I hesitate. “Oh, yeah, I like that story.”

He takes a bite of the hot dog and smiles. “I know.”

“All right, all right. Gimme that.” I tear the hot dog out of his hands. “So what happened in Ireland?”

“Hell if I know. You’re the writer.”

Good thing he didn’t give me the shillelagh.

Taking the Characters for Chili Dogs

 

Sometimes you write the story; sometimes the story writes you. I generally have more luck when the story does the telling. When I jump in, it usually ends up like it does when I jump into someone’s conversation at a party and suddenly realize that they were talking about real saints and not the New Orleans football team.

Anyway, the current story takes place in Hollywood. Mostly. Important bits of it do anyway. And when I think of Hollywood, I think of faded glamour and hot dog stands, not movie stars and Kim Kardashian.

Which means that I would be a lot less disappointed on a sightseeing tour of the Sunset Strip.

But I digress.

The story needed a location in Hollywood and I immediately thought of Carney’s. Carney’s is a hot dog stand in an old train car, well, actually, two old train cars, that has been selling chili dogs on the Sunset Strip for almost forty years. Back in my Hollywood days, we used to pass by it many times a night as we cruised aimlessly down Sunset, but I’d never actually been inside. Still, there are photos on the Internet, so I figured I could wing it.

I figured wrong.

Because me randomly picking a place I don’t really know is not the same as a character grabbing hold of a location himself. The characters know what they are going to do before I do. I’m not sure how that happens, but if I get out of the way and let them, the story comes out much better.

So here I am with a scene that could best be described as useful. It moves the action from here to there, but it is about as energetic as a dead possum. This left me with two options. Go to Carney’s or just make stuff up. I chose Option A.

Because Option B does not involve chili dogs.

Elaine took pity on me with my broken down car and my broken down foot and agreed to drive me up to Carney’s for some lunch. She was a little concerned about the traffic. She needn’t have worried.

Turns out there is nothing more deserted than the Sunset Strip on a Sunday morning.

We pulled into the driveway beside Carney’s. No one at the picnic tables. No one at the windows of the train car. Only one car in the parking lot.

“Are you sure it’s open?”

“Well, if it isn’t, we’ll go to Canter’s.”

Which wouldn’t help the story at all, but they have a Reuben to die for.

So we park and get out. I’m at least going to take a few photos of the outside of the place. As I’m framing my first shot, another car drives in. A friendly couple from Texas gets out and they immediately volunteer to take a photo of Elaine and I with the train car if we will take a photo of them with the train car.

Which leaves me in the embarrassing position of having to explain that I don’t really want any photos of anyone in front of the train car, just photos of the train car, all by its lonesome.

For a story.

About vampires.

On the Sunset Strip.

Damn it.

I may not have mentioned the vampires because I usually don’t if I can get away with it. I don’t remember. I was too busy feeling awkward.

Elaine saves the day by offering to take a photo of them. I go back to taking shots of various angles of the train car, hobbling around as much as my foot will let me.

I took pictures of everything because I wasn’t sure exactly what I needed. I took pictures of the tiny train car bathroom. I took pictures of the zigzag handicap ramp. I took pictures of the picnic tables out front. I took pictures of the view of the hotel across the street from out of the train car window. Pretty much everything but the far west end of the train car because it was far and I was gimpy.

So I get home, full of chili dogs and inspiration. Things are flowing nicely. I know almost every inch of Carney’s now. I can use anything.

Drac decides he needs to make an entrance from the far west end, the only part of the entire building I hadn’t had a good look at.

Thank goodness for Google Maps.

I Am Not A Hoarder…Probably

But I love stuff. Weird stuff, mostly. Like dinosaur bones and Zuni fetishes and watercolor paintings of Lucky Dog vendors in the French Quarter. Sometimes stuff just speaks to me and sometimes I say “Stuff, I don’t need you.” But other times, I see something and there’s a story hiding in it. Maybe it’s a whole novel, maybe it’s just that crucial plot point that has been eluding me for weeks, but if it’s in that thing and that thing is on eBay, well, I have to buy it.

Hence the state of the spare bedroom.

So I’ve spent the week trying to turn the tide before I find myself with a starring role on A & E.

It’s like an archeological dig of my own life. Sort of the geology of Robin. Things have gathered into time periods, like strata in a rock formation. Here is the year I was obsessed with Pokemon. I really wanted to be an animator until I realized that I didn’t have the temperament for it. I could draw the pictures, I just couldn’t draw the same pictures over and over. Anyway, certain cartoons grab me now and then, seducing me with the design of their characters. Pikachu had his turn. It’s over.

Into the donation box.

Onto the Tasmanian tigers. Cool, sad, extinct. And yet very popular now they are all dead. Sort of like the California grizzly. You can find all kinds of Tasmanian tiger stuff. Books, stuffed animals, license plates. Anyway, I wrote a story about one. It was kind of tragic. I bought many things. Also kind of tragic.

Yes, I have a license plate. No, I’m not getting rid of it.

But the newspaper clippings can go.

I’m making headway. I’ve sorted the books into two boxes, the keepers and the goers. I’ve made it through the sack of old sneakers. I’ve tossed out three trash bags of stuff.

I’m rolling.

So into the next plastic grocery bag, assuming it is just more receipts to be shredded. I think about half these plastic bags are full of stuff to be shredded. The shredder can only handle about 12 sheets of paper before it jams and needs major maintenance so the shredding does pile up. Anyway, another boring bag.

Only it wasn’t.

Because the problem with cleaning out the spare room is that it is a minefield. Boring, boring, boring, devastating.

So the bag was full of mail. From the year my mom died.  And the first thing I pulled out was a sympathy card signed by all my closest friends.

Now this is usually the point where I stop cleaning. I leave the room and don’t come back. But I can’t do that. I always do that and that is why I have a room full of stuff.

But I need a breather first. Watch some Olympics, make some brownies, revel in the warm gooey mixture of melted butter, cocoa powder and sugar for a few moments as I talk myself into getting back to work.

One card, I can handle one card.

I go back.

To a different spot.

I open a tub. It’s full of rejected stories, still in their manila envelopes, rejection letters intact.

Damn.

I need another brownie.

The Wandering Spoon: A Love Story in Half a Dozen Acts

So Mark took me to see La Cage Aux Folles at the Pantages Theater last week. As we were eating dinner before the show, Mark threw down a knife and fork in front of me and said, in what I’m assuming was a compliment, “You could take that and write a story about it.” I kind of stared down at the table and thought “I could?” in a not so positive way, but by the end of the meal, I was feeling better about the whole thing so I told Mark to take a photo and I would come up with something. Sadly, all the forks were gone by then, so the story is about a spoon.

Deal with it.

The Wandering Spoon: A Love Story in Half a Dozen Acts

Life can be rough here at the corner of Hollywood and Vine. Oh, sure, there’s the glamorous Pantages Theater nearby, but all the stage-struck dreams in the world won’t help you if you’re a spoon. And Kayla was a spoon, a dessert spoon to be exact, but she wasn’t happy just to dish out bread pudding to the customers. No, she wanted to be an actress.

Which is tough when you’re silverware.

But she practiced every day at the Irish pub, flirting with the diners, being coy with the busboys, hoping someone, somewhere would take her out of this joint and make her a star.

Her boyfriend Kevin thought she was wonderful just the way she was, but what did he know? He was happy being a utensil. He didn’t share her dreams.

And he was also a little short.

But they did have some fun times, dipping into the bread pudding together, cutting through the virgin whipped cream, curving through the cold hard ice cream into the hot steamy bread pudding beneath. Sometimes they would be on either side of the dessert, too far to touch, but sometimes, they would meet in the middle, just clipping edges on a downward swing, diving in over and over until they lay exhausted in the cool puddle of liquid at the bottom of the plate.

It should have been enough.

But it wasn’t.

One day she noticed someone new at the far end of the table, a knife left over from the dinner service, tall and glistening. She slid over to take a closer look. The knife took one glance at her curves and swept her into his arms.

Well, where his arms would have been anyway.

He told her things, things no one had ever said to her before, about how talented she was and how he could get her a job in the pictures. And how could he be lying? He was so tall and thin. He had to be an actor himself.

“You leave her alone.” Kevin reached out, trying to pull Kayla from the interloper’s nonexistent arms, but it was no use. Mack just held her up out of reach.

Kayla pressed herself against Mack’s smooth shiny…uh..chest. “Go away, Kevin.”

“But…”

“No more bread pudding for me. I’m going to be a star.”

And Mack carried her away, off across the table to the empty dessert plate with no preliminaries, no swooping and soaring and almost touching. Just plunk into the cold remnants of someone else’s joy.

She lay in the stinging remains of the whiskey sauce, shamed and alone. There were no movies, no stardom. It was all just a lie. She cried silver tears into the melted ice cream.

“Kayla?”

And there was Kevin, poor loyal Kevin, waiting for her on the far side of the plate. She staggered through the slop to him, mumbling apologies as she went.

He pulled her close. “You’re such a great actress, I almost believed that you didn’t care about me.”

Kayla snuggled against him. “I almost believed it too.”

Useless Writer Mode

So I’ve been stuck in Useless Writer Mode the last three weeks or so. I got a sudden urge to reread Books One and Two, do a little editing, make them presentable for public consumption, that sort of thing. A simple little plan.

That has rendered me utterly useless for the duration.

Oh, I look functional. I get stuff done. I go to work, I make dinner, I take showers, I pay bills, all the requisites.

I just don’t do them willingly.

Because inside, I’m just jonesing to get back to the stories, back to my characters, back to that dream sequence that may be a little too long, back to that scene where I want to switch the first two paragraphs, back to Page 123 where I need to take out the word “the.”

Yes, it’s that bad.

Of course, when I’m actually working with the characters, it’s heaven. We are literally on the same page and, if we aren’t, a tweak here and there puts us back in sync. All the little flaws jump right out at me. Take a word out here. Add a sentence there. Better, much better.

Damn it. I need to go do something else. Okay, okay. Just until the end of the chapter then. Because I want to see if that last scene works. And then I can go.

Maybe.

And life sort of goes on and I sort of go with it, but in a vague sleepwalker sort of way. Because no matter what else I’m doing, my mind is still working on ways to clean up the end of Chapter 7.

Years ago, after my mom died, I went to see a therapist for a while. And I remember one session where I just sat on the couch and cried. “I don’t want to be a writer. I want to be a normal person.”

And Dr. C would say, “But you are a writer.”

“But people don’t have to be writers, right?”

“What do you think about when you’re driving on the freeway?”

“My characters tell me stories.”

“But don’t you see how wonderful that is? Most people have to settle for working on their grocery lists.”

I never did see the wonderful. And I spent a great deal of time trying not to be a writer (of course, writing all the time I was supposedly not doing it). I was supposed to keep a journal, but that never happened.

Because it’s not my life that I write about.

Shoot. Now I’m late for work.

Maybe Drac can write me a note.